Bolivia: The Telenovela, 1

Bolivia: The Telenovela, 1
Published: Mar 25, 2016
Bolivia is not what you think. It is what you can't possibly think and some more — a beautiful and dusty, colorful and sort-of thriving, feral and friendly, politically engaged and enraging landlocked country down the centre of the Andes mountains that is the poorest nation in South America and second poorest in Latin America, after Haiti. The author has followed the recent climactic months in President Evo Morales' tenure, including a Chavez-style referendum and a tabloid scandal neatly erupting a few days before. She offers this chronicle of wild Bolivian political culture.

La Paz, the 'new' capital of Bolivia. >

October 12, 2015

President Evo Morales is getting ready for the coming vote, scheduled for February 2016. He is pitching a national referendum to vote on whether to amend the Constitution so that he can run for a fourth term. (The Constitution mandates that one can run for only two terms.) Cracking a confident smile, he indicates that his personal aim is to achieve a Personal Best: to raise the percentage in favor of re-election to 70%. In past elections he has received as much as 60%.

O.K., folks, get comfy on that sofa . . . now the show begins.

Vice President Álvaro Garcia Linera, known as “el Vice,” accuses the United States of funding the campaign against a fourth re-election.

November 25, 2015

El Vice claims that if Evo is not re-elected in 2019, any new government will “take away the babies, the sun will not rise, and the moon will disappear.”

That does sound ominous.

January 30, 2016

Claiming a state of economic emergency resulting from unfair taxation, the Tranporte Pesado Sindicalizado launches a blockade of all highways leading to the nation's cities. During a similar dispute in 2013, the economy was strangled for two months — with both mega-businesses and small street peddlers losing income and mercados, stores, and restaurants left bare.

People here know how to do blockades; they're normal fare in these parts. Marco and I get ready by buying up heaps of rice, nuts and oatmeal.

Transportistas blockade — throughout the country. >

February 3

A game between the government and the trucking industry begins, with each side holding out — while the population is left without transport. Lacking ways to get home, some sleep in the streets, others carry their wares on their backs for miles. Eleven die: one from the crack of a military night stick, another of an aneurism, and nine when a bus crashes while circumnavigating the barricade via an inadequate road. Protests erupt. Everybody hunkers down.

We cook up vegetables and fruit to freeze.

Reporter Carlos Valverde drops a Journalistic Bomb: in 2005-2007 President Evo Morales has an affair with a model 30 years his junior, Gabriela Zapata. They have a son, but he dies and the two break up. In 2013 at age 24 she — who claims a degree in law from an unknown and unidentified university — is made a high-level executive of China CAMC Engineering Company that seals the deals for contracts with Chinese businesses to the tune of US$576,000,000. According to Valverde, Zapata is engaged in cocaine trafficking made possible by government collaboration. Evo is implicated.

What weird twist now unfoldeth?

February 4

Minister of the President Juan Ramón Quintana proclaims that the president has not had contact with Zapata since 2007.


February 5

In a heart-to-heart with the nation, Evo reveals that yes, he had a baby with her, but tragically the child died.

Aaaaah . . . O.K.

El Vice accuses the Right Wing of taking advantage of a poor fallen child.

February 6

Whatsupp circulates a photo of Morales hugging Zapata at Carnaval de Oruro, dated 2015. The image goes viral.


Evo and Gabriela (right). He said he hadn't seen her since 2007 . . . until this photo was released. >


Evo explains that at that particular Carnaval, he saw a “face he recognized but couldn´t place, and she came closer and it was Gabriela.”

The plot thickens.

According to the U.S. State Department, although some 85% of Bolivians claim an indigenous heritage or bloodline, 56% identify as Catholic and 36.5% Protestant or Evangelical Christian. The Pew Research Center concludes that 77% of Bolivians are Catholic and 17% Christian. Whichever denomination, citizens with Christ in their hearts are given to offense when it comes to failure to live up to family responsibilities.

I talk to taxi drivers, street vendors, shopkeepers. Moral indignation is precisely what I hear from them.

February 14 

The annual ten-day, full-tilt-boogey, chicha-drunken, party-time Carnaval commences! . . . It always makes for a major economic boon to the country as thousands travel to Oruro where the most spectacular procession of South America occurs, plus it´s at heart a spiritual celebration with roots in pre-Colombian times. Blockading truckers announce that they will re-open the highways for the duration.

My forehead bunches up in the shape of a question mark. I open the freezer door and stare at an excess of apple sauce.

February 17

What ostensibly begins as a peaceful march to the El Alto city hall to bring attention to the poor state of schools ends with a burning of the building. Documents proving corruption in the previous administration (dominated by Evo's party Movimiento al Socialism (MAS)) are destroyed. Functionaries of said government arise out of the more innocent ranks to attack the building — kicking down doors, breaking windows, entering, throwing gasoline on furniture, sacking computers, and setting the place on fire. Six die — four trapped in a bathroom succumbing to carbon monoxide asphyxiation, one stabbed, one bleeding to death from a bludgeoning to the skull. The fire department located a block away, does not respond. It takes the police department three hours to arrive.



MAS's Vice Minister of the Interior Marcelo Elío announces that what appears as a tragedy was actually invented and carried through by the current progressive-but-not-MAS mayor to make MAS look bad before the referendum.

February 19 

Because citizens video the event, four perpetrators are thrown in jail for inciting the blaze — a union director who in the past has worked with El Alto's ex-mayor of the MAS party, a former MAS city council candidate, and two young people. Twenty more are suspected of conspiracy or participation.

February 21

Bolivia essentially shuts down — no cars, no airplanes, no alcohol, no public gatherings — as the population is called to vote on whether or not to change the Constitution.

We walk down the empty boulevards. We eat empanadas sold on street-corner kiosks. A calm overtakes the city, but inside everyone waits . . .

Finally we learn the first-count results. “No” has won.

El Vice assures the populace that, whatever the outcome, he and Evo will honor the results.

The El Alto fire. "The fire department located a block away, does not respond." >

February 22

El Vice says that “the results could be modified.”

What does that mean?

Evo rancorously blames social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsupp for lying and destroying his popularity.

What the fuck?

He calls for government control of the internet. La Fuerza Aérea Boliviano responds on a dime, prohibiting all in the military from using social networks.

What about that soldier who made his fame with a hip-hop video about being in the Bolivian military?!

February 23

El Vice accuses crowds standing in front of voting stations, bodyguards, and the Right Wing of blocking the MAS-supporting, campesino majority from voting.

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro chimes in. “(The Right has) waged a dirty war to destroy him . . .” he says. “They invented scandals. . . There´s a threat against progressive projects because the right never respects the rules of the game.”

February 24

The Tribunal Supremo Electoral reports that, with 99.72 % of the votes in, “NO” is the official winner.

With indignation Evo demands that Zapata present the child within six days.

February 26

La Fuerza Especial de la Lucha Contra el Crimen detains Zapata. The charge is illegal enrichment , taking advantage of government connections, and drug trafficking. It is revealed that, in a rush in 2015, she told Jimmy Morales to deposit a check for $30,000 into her personal account. He is a chauffeur in . . . the Ministry of the President.

Hell with “Location, location, location!” The cogent theme now is . . . "Plot, Plot, Plot!"

Minister Quintana calls Carlos Valverde a “drug dealer disguised as a journalist.”


The truckers' union threatens to renew the nationwide blockade.

For a little background drama.

February 27

Cameras rolling, microphones on — Zapata´s aunt Pilar Guzman, who is now an ex-director at CAMC, proclaims that the Morales-Zapata child is not dead.

A veritable page-turner!

February 29 

Evo asserts that Zapata lied to him in 2007. She said the baby had died.

Oh-oh. The populace is on tether hooks.

El Vice presents a diagram showing links between Zapata and two Right-Wing parties — through the political preferences of her brother. Radio commentators remind us that El Vice's brother is mentally ill.

I have a brother who's an activist for Donald Trump.

With indignation Evo demands that Zapata present the child within six days.

Get it together, Gaby! EVERYONE wants to see if the child wears $4000 suits like his dad.

Landlocked Bolivia. >

February 29 

Minister Quintana accuses the United States of trying to destabilize Bolivia economically by destroying its investment relations with China and Russia.

Despite my studied awareness that the age-old tactic of creating enemies strikes terror in the hearts of the citizenry — and builds solidarity, I'm nervous. I need to lay low.

Quintana goes on. In her role as executive at CAMC, Zapata has entered the Ministry of the President more than 40 times, stationing herself in the office that normally belongs to a First Lady. Her working connection there, he asserts, is not Evo; it is a couple of sub-officials who are now in jail.

If she was shillyshallying about Evo's official workplace, didn´t he see her?

March 2

In a press conference Minister of the Government Carlos Romero discloses that not only have death threats to Evo emerged on social networks, but a veritable drone has been seen hovering over his house.

Minister of Defense Reymi Ferreira proclaims that the President is a modern-day . . . Mahatma Gandhi/Joseph Stalin.

Did someone hand him a script or did he make that up by himself?

He also points a condemning finger at the U.S., the Right Wing, social networks, and the nation´s newspapers and television stations. They have orchestrated a conspiracy against Morales.

Late that night, a “rare mobilization by police” on the block where Carlos Valverde lives catalyzes a late-night street blockade made of hundreds of neighbors, friends, and followers of the journalist. Thwarted by the crowd, the police leave. . .

Carlos is feeling a tad nervous too.

Bolivian 2016 referendum results by city. >

March 3

On a TV news program the hostess asks Minister Romero about the hyped-up police presence in Valverde´s neighborhood. Romero: “Please . . . I don´t understand the nature of that question . . . I´m working . . . I won´t be pressed into this kind of idle trivia.” He storms off the set.

Minister Quintana accuses the media of lying and announces that in the coming days several of them will be “disappeared.”


The press reveals that Quintana was a career officer in the Bolivian army during . . . President Hugo Banzer´s right-wing dictatorship.


March 4

News agencies report on the couture “choices” in the Obrajes prison of queen of chic/corporate executive Zapata, saying that she “left behind her high-heeled sandals, to which she was accustomed, to don simple bathroom slippers.”

Well, they are more comfortable.

March 5

Evo calls a CNN reporter working in Bolivia “a drug dealer on the lam from justice in the U.S.”

Strange . . . We haven´t heard a peep about the truck drivers. What about El Alto? There are droughts and hail storms threatening food production, cocaine factories, paid-off judges within the justice department . . .

Political analysts report that the Brouhaha is diverting the State from dealing with the emergency issues it faces: 1) the reduction of national exports by 35%; 2) an increasing national debt — including US$7,500,000,000 owed to China; 3) the reform of a justice system fraught with fraud, favoritism, and discrimination; 4) citizen safety in an increasingly violent environ; 5) farm-to-factory narcotics production and trafficking; and 6) climate change that threatens Bolivia´s food security.

They accuse the Morales-Garcia obsession with maintaining personal power as a root cause.

March 8

With members of the Bolivian military at his side, Evo warns that he is considering a proposal to “purge” the officials and civil servants who voted “NO” in the referendum.

This series is not over. Stay tuned. . .

HEATHER MENCKEN is a Canadian photojournalist and writer currently traveling through Latin America. She received a MFA from Ryerson University in Toronto and is a long standing member of that city's collective, the NeoDada Gymnasts. Her book, One If by Sea, Two If by Land, Three If by Internet, is soon to be published.


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